In bus advertisements, billboards and social media posts that will go up this week, the city of Minneapolis is asking parents to do something simple that officials believe could have a big impact on erasing disparities: talk to their kids.
Tuesday, Mayor Betsy Hodges will launch "Talking is Teaching," a new initiative aimed at getting parents to talk, sing and read to their babies. Officials believe that if more parents get the message that talking is critical for babies' development, they might be able to tackle major gaps in learning and language development between wealthier and poorer families.
While much of the city's focus on equity issues involves more immediate problems, like gun violence, education or unemployment, Hodges said it's become clear that changing those trends will require addressing more of the issues that precipitate them.
"We have to go upstream to make sure we are solving problems before they start so that downstream we have fewer problems," she said.
The city's campaign points to two academic studies: one that found that children in higher-income families hear up to 30 million more words than poor children by age 4, and a second that found that children in lower-income households end up six months behind in language comprehension by age 2. Angela Watts, the mayor's senior policy aide for early childhood education and youth development, said the goal is to encourage families to use any moment as an opportunity for a conversation.
"While you're doing everyday chores — riding the bus, doing the laundry, giving the baby a bath — let's talk about what's going on," she said. "For a baby, anything can be that running narrative. They absorb everything around them, so it's never too early to begin."
'Early learning city'
Talking is Teaching is the first significant program to come out of the mayor's Cradle to K Cabinet, a panel of education and child-development experts Hodges appointed two years ago to focus on babies and children up to age 3. It builds on research and materials developed by the Clinton Foundation and The Opportunity Institute for their "Too Small to Fail" initiative.
Other cities around the country, including Oakland, Calif., Tulsa, Okla., and Miami, are already running similar campaigns. In Minneapolis, the project is starting with $50,000 in city funding, technical and promotional assistance from the The Opportunity Institute, and hopes of securing hundreds of thousands of dollars more in private funds.
In addition to placing posters on buses, in libraries and in businesses, officials want to reach out via television and radio ads. They'll also provide literacy kits to families in home visits run by the city's health department.
Watts has spent several months visiting stores, gas stations, child-care centers — anywhere parents spend time with their children. She's asked laundromat owners to set up bookshelves so that parents and children could read while their clothes are in the wash. She's working with the Hennepin County Library as it plans to provide books for check-out in day care centers in north Minneapolis.
"The goal is to create a language-rich early learning city," Watts said.
Dr. Pamela Chawla, senior medical director of primary care at Children's Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota, said many parents mistakenly believe that a quiet baby is a good baby. Instead, she said, they should encourage babies to develop, explore and babble through one-on-one interactions.
"From birth to 3 is your critical window for brain development," she said. "It is where all of your neurons and connections are happening; without that stimulation from a relationship-based encounter, they just don't bloom."
Doctors with books
Many medical clinics in Minneapolis already encourage that development by providing a new book to each young child who comes in for an appointment. Those books are paid for by a national organization called Reach Out and Read. The program estimates that it reaches about 70 percent of Minneapolis children under 5 but wants to reach all of them.
Lynne Burke, state director for Reach Out and Read, said she's glad the mayor is calling more attention to an effort her group has been working on for several years.
Inside Hennepin County Medical Center's downtown pediatrics clinic, dozens of books are arranged neatly in bins, ready for doctors to grab. On a recent afternoon, Dr. Rhamy Magid picked one out and carried it in to an appointment with 10-month-old Kar'melo Teetzel. The baby, gurgling happily, grabbed for the book and later tried to put it in his mouth — exactly the moves Magid had been looking for.
In one short checkup, Magid was able to use a book to measure key developmental milestones — could the baby grab for the book and focus his eyes on it? — and provide the family with a reminder of the importance of talking and reading. The program encourages parents from all backgrounds, including those with limited English or literacy skills, to use books to talk with their children — even if they're just looking at the pictures and making up the story as they go.
Watts said the Mayor's Office wants to use Talking is Teaching to expand those programs, rather than starting from scratch.
"It's not about [the mayor] telling parents what you should do," Watts said. "It's about how critically important it is — the science of brain development is indisputable now."